The 2016 presidential election will be the first to unfold against the backdrop of the national Black Lives Matter movement. Even as the movement remains most active in local campaigns and continues to have a fractured national character, its imprint is all over the Democratic Party’s primary process. This is, of course, of little consequence to the Republican Party, but matters greatly in the Democratic Party race where the two leading candidates for the party’s nomination—for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders—attempt to position themselves as heirs to Barack Obama’s historically high Black voter turnout in 2008 and 2012.
From the earliest moments of the 2016 campaign season, Democratic Party candidates have been racing to keep up with the movement. For example, Clinton reluctantly declared in a public setting “black lives matter,” in December of 2014 as Black protests erupted nationally after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who choked Eric Garner to death.
Those protests boiled over into the spring, fueled by the brutal murder of Walter Scott in South Carolina by officer Michael Slaeger that was captured on video. Indeed, the frustrations with perceptions of police lawlessness erupted into open rebellion in Baltimore, Maryland, in April when young Freddie Gray died of injuries sustained while in police custody. The struggle in Baltimore not only applied pressure on sitting politicians to reign in the police, but it also pressured those candidates vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.
Clinton used the anxious atmosphere in the aftermath of Baltimore to speak more broadly about police violence in American cities. She said “Walter Scott shot in the back in Charleston, South Carolina, unarmed, in debt, terrified of spending any more time in jail for child support payments he couldn’t afford. Tamir Rice shot in a park in Cleveland, Ohio, unarmed and just 12 years old. Eric Garner, choked to death after being stopped for selling cigarettes on the streets of our city. And now Freddie Gray, his spine nearly severed while in police custody… Not only as a mother and a grandmother, but as a citizen, a human being, my heart breaks for these young men and their families… We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America.”
Finally, Clinton declared, “it’s time we end the era of mass incarceration… We have allowed our criminal justice system to get out of balance. And these recent tragedies should galvanize us to come together as a nation to find our balance again.”
Bernie Sanders, who jumped in the race after Clinton, understood that in order to have a chance at the Party’s nomination, he would have to cut into Clinton’s considerable support among Blacks and Latinos. Sanders later traveled to the West Baltimore neighborhood where Freddie Gray was picked up by police and remarked, “Anyone who took the walk that we took around this neighborhood would not think you are in a wealthy nation,” Sanders said. “You would think you are in a third world country.”
The Black Lives Matter movement has pulled Black suffering and oppression from the margins of US society right into the center of American politics in the midst of a presidential election year.
A section of movement activists initiated protests directed at Democratic Party candidates hoping to motivate a greater focus on racism, poverty and injustice in their political programs. #BlackLivesMatters activists, including founder Patrisse Cullors, stormed high profile events of Bernie Sanders and Clinton, enduring insults as a result, but the heat generated by the protests certainly forced Clinton and Sanders to adjust or even create “racial justice” platforms to stay relevant to the developing Black movement.
The immediate results were multiple meetings between well-known activists in the movement and the campaigns of Clinton and Sanders. The focus on racial politics has been a crucial aspect of the broader Democratic Party agenda to keep Black voters engaged in the political process this year especially.
In 2008 and 2012, African Americans voted in historically high numbers for Barack Obama and were decisive in his winning the presidency. There is concern that the absence of Obama on the ticket will depress Black voter turnout, jeopardizing the Democrats’ goal of retaining the White House and potentially competing for several Congressional seats as well, as the Party also hopes to reclaim the Congress.
With the primary season in full swing, the focus on Black voters has intensified especially as Clinton and Sanders split the first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire with almost no Black votes at stake. But Clinton’s prowess among Black voters was on display as she decisively swept Southern states on the strength of African American support.
There had been some hope within Sanders’ campaign that several high profile Black activists, writers, and entertainers’ support could cut into Clinton’s lead among African American voters. This was especially true when articles began to appear documenting Hillary Clinton’s support for law-and-order and anti-social welfare policies during her husband, Bill Clinton’s, tenure in the 1990s.
But none of it appeared to have any impact on Black support for Clinton. The raging question in the days and weeks since has been on the meaning of Black electoral support for the Clinton campaign. In some ways, it is not very difficult to understand. There are three primary reasons for Clinton’s dominance among Black voters that begins with her close relationship with the Black political establishment. The political wing of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) came out early in support of Clinton for president. The CBC, of course, had been a close and reliable ally of Bill Clinton in the 1990s—backing even his most regressive policies like the 1994 Crime Bill in order to maintain political access to the Clinton White House. The CBC has become even more conservative and politically cautious accepting donations from Walmart and the Koch brothers in fundraising ventures. Nevertheless, their championing of Clinton while admonishing Sanders has been influential among a significant layer of Black voters.
The CBC’s support has been important but so has Clinton’s own ability to clearly articulate her vision of a Black agenda. In a high profile speech made in central Harlem in New York City, Clinton pledged that ending “systemic racism” would be the “centerpiece” of her presidential administration. She also unveiled a vague, but actual, multi-billion dollar plan that she described as key to “revitalizing economically” urban and rural Black enclaves. The focus on Black voters is a sharp departure from Obama who could not or would not commit to a specific plan to address Black poverty and inequality. In the run-up to the 2012 Presidential election, Obama reminded voters that he was not the president of Black America. Clinton, however, is in need of a robust Black voter turnout and has had to actively solicit the Black vote to compensate for the lack of excitement in the coming election. There is no reason to believe that Clinton will actually follow through on any of her promises, given the dysfunction of the US Congress and that much of her program does not actually address the racial discrimination that is the key to Black inequality and oppression in the US. Instead, Clinton is focused on job training and other “opportunity” centered programs that do not really address the changing political economy of metropolitan areas across the country where Blacks are concentrated. Nevertheless, Clinton has clearly tried to articulate an agenda to appeal to Black voters.
Sanders has a campaign platform that should appeal widely to Black voters, including his opposition to the death penalty, his support for a $15 minimum wage, universal healthcare, and free public college tuition. Sanders, who hails from the lily white state of Vermont and whose tenure in the Senate has been as an Independent, has not had to build political relationships with the CBC or other Black political operatives. Thus, he is not very well known among Black voters. In South Carolina exit polls, familiarity with the candidate and experience was rated significantly higher than “electability” in the November election. Even still, Sanders did well among Black voters under thirty which indicates that if Sanders had more time, and had not endured a virtual media blackout until the Iowa caucuses he may have won even more Black voters to his campaign. Despite Sanders growing appeal among some Black voters, it is difficult to build the reputation and connections to Black political and civic organizations that are key to turning voters out in a matter of weeks and months compared to the twenty-five year history of the Clinton political machine.
Finally, the horror show of the Republican Party primary is compelling reason enough for some to vote for what is considered the sure bet of Hillary Clinton against whomever emerges as the Republican nominee. In most election cycles there are withering arguments to defeat the Republican nominee as the greater evil, but this year the pressure is even more intense. This is not the typical racism and xenophobia of most Republican Party contests, but the rise of Donald Trump as a leading figure among Republicans has generated legitimate concern. Trump appears to adhere to his own rules, ignoring the racial codes and innuendo that have been the norm in American politics since the end of the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. Trump calls for the deportation of undocumented immigrants, the torture of Muslims, and has played coy with his welcoming of white supremacists around the fringes of his campaign. Clinton and the Democratic Party will be relying on the fear of a Trump presidency to motivate Black voters in the fall election.
Given the epic crisis in legitimacy facing the Republican Party, the Democrats should have no problem in the general election. But the lingering fear remains that without a significant turnout of the Democratic Party base, including Black voters, the Democrats may not have as easy a time as polls indicate both Clinton and Sanders would have in a head-to-head contest against Trump. While the media has been breathlessly reporting on their perceptions of the deep wells of political support for Clinton in Black communities, especially in the South, what has been less reported on is the significant drop in the number of Democrats, including Black Democrats, voting in the primaries this year compared to 2008.
For example, across the South where Clinton dominated Sanders in the primary votes, Democratic voter turnout was, in some cases, dramatically lower than it had been in 2008. In Texas and Tennessee there were 50 percent and 40 percent fewer voters, respectively. In Arkansas, Alabama, and Georgia voter turnout was down between a quarter and a third. This dramatic decrease in voter turnout also includes the much sought after Black vote. South Carolina, which many mark as a turning point for Clinton’s campaign, saw a 40 percent decrease in Black voter turnout.
For all of the discussion of the Clinton machine, politically she has not been able to generate the interest or enthusiasm of Obama in 2008. Unlike Obama, Clinton has been forced to curtail expectations raised by the Sanders campaign. Where Obama’s campaign was able to activate new layers of Black voters on the promise of “hope” and “change,” Hillary has looked to temper expectations by contrasting her candidacy to Sanders who she accuses of “over promising” things like universal healthcare and ending tuition at public universities. Many of those millenials activated by the promise of the Obama administration and then dejected by the sclerosis of his administration went on to join the Occupy struggle against economic inequality and later the Black Lives Matter movement. Clinton’s main slogan “breaking down barriers” hardly ignites the same kind of passion and excitement witnessed in 2008—especially when some African Americans believe that Clinton and her husband were responsible for perpetuating many of those barriers when doing so seemed politically opportune in the 1990s.
One can imagine that there is a formidable amount of skepticism about reentering electoral politics with the same rigor that swept many up into the 2008 Obama campaign. If the election of an African American president, swept into office by the promises of fundamental change, could produce such small and, at times, imperceptible changes in the lives of ordinary Black people, then it would be hard to find excitement in a Clinton or Sanders campaign this time around. This may explain how even in Sanders’ home state of Vermont, the under 30 vote in the primary was almost 40 percent lower than it had been in 2008. Sanders has tried to tap into hope, but for all of the enthusiasm he has garnered, the Obama experience has surely left an untold number of people disillusioned with the entire political process.
The feeling of exasperation with formal politics is not only fueled by the utter dysfunction of the US Congress—from the refusal of the Senate to even entertain any Obama nominee for the US Supreme Court to the annual ritual of House Republicans voting to overturn Obama’s healthcare plan—but it is bolstered by the persistence of racism. If the Obama presidency was intended to usher in a new era of postracial relief, the Republican primaries, the rise of the Trump mob, and the ongoing epidemic of unchecked police violence and murder exposes the limits of electoral politics in changing the fundamental nature of American society.
This exasperation is not necessarily political apathy but it can represent an opportunity for the political left to continue to build the kind of activist alternative to the stasis of the Democratic Party. Sanders has certainly tapped into the sentiment that something more substantive than simply pulling the lever for this or that candidate in the coming election is the most important use of people’s time. Instead, he has called for a political revolution by which he means the massive participation of the public in demonstrations and political action intended to get elected officials to act more in the interest of the public. This, of course, is a great idea, but the notion that such a “revolution” can happen under the leadership of the Democratic Party is deeply mistaken.
In the last five years, we have seen the insurgent Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter transform the politics and discussion of economic and racial inequality in the United States. Both movements worked to uncover the hypocrisy and hollowness of American democracy and both demonstrated direct action, pickets, and protest as the most effective means of social change in contrast to voting for millionaire politicians. The Occupy movement would go on to suffer police repression and physical attack but the issues uncovered have not gone away. Instead, as the anemic economic recovery sputters along, there has been a deepening of the disparity between the rich and the rest of us in the US. Black Lives Matter continues along with police murder and violence. The movement has done much to expose the injustice of American policing but it has also been confronted with the difficulty of transforming the systems of the criminal justice system that have their entire origins and history rooted in the oppression of Black and Brown people in the United States. This is difficult to undo through demonstrations alone. The movement can, however, provide a home and a direction to the hundreds of thousands of voters who have expressed little interest in the pending contest for president but remain concerned about the state of the world. The last eighteen months of protest and movement building have shown to be vastly more effective in exposing the issues entangled with police violence than the empty promises of elected officials.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is a writer, public speaker and activist living in Philadelphia. She writes on Black politics, housing inequality and issues of race and class in the United States. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University. Her book From #BLACKLIVESMATTER to BLACK LIBERATION, published in February by Haymarket Books, has received rave reviews from Michelle Alexander, Robin D.G. Kelley, and Cornel West who says “Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has emerged as the most sophisticated and courageous radical intellectual of her generation.” We at Tikkun are honored to be able to publish this article.